Reinventing the Rules

Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects

4 Ways Mobile Phones are Increasing Access to Justice

Land Rights

In Bolivia, indigenous communities have struggled to establish their rights to land and many lack formal titles to property they own. While the Bolivian government has made strides to address the land titling process, many indigenous people have been unable to benefit due to the long distances they have to travel and poor communication facilities. An additional challenge has been the requirement that communities agree on how land boundaries are defined before formalizing it with the government. On average, it may take community members 450 days to finalize their title to land.

Credit: Jennifer Dillan/Mercy Corps

Credit: Jennifer Dillan/Mercy Corps

To address this problem, Mercy Corps partnered with Fundación Tierra, a non-profit which works on land rights in Bolivia. Together, they created a system where rural communities could use their cell phones to send GPS coordinates to map out land boundaries. Using SMS technology from Frontline SMS they also stay up to date on the status of their land agreements and produce reports necessary to complete the government’s registration process to acquire title to their land. After the GPS coordinates have been recorded, the local community gets together to view the map on a large screen and then discusses the boundaries.

A toll-free hotline has also been established since indigenous languages are often spoken and not recorded. The hotline enables users to speak to staff directly at Fundación Tierra. You can learn more here.

SMS-based Legal Aid Help Desk

In Kenya, there are less than 2,000 lawyers, most of which are based in the capital or other big cities. These attorneys serve 41 million people, half of which live below the poverty line. With 80% of the population living in rural areas, securing access to justice has been particularly challenging.

With the help of HiiL Innovating Justice, Kituo Cha Sheria and Space Kenya developed a mobile legal helpdesk called M-Sheria that enables users to send queries about their legal problems via SMS. Updates for the Justice System describes how the mobile user receives a confirmation text and later another SMS responding t0 their question. Kitua Cha Sheria, a legal aid organization in Kenya, works with over 500 pro bono advocates around the country to read and answer people’s queries online. Paralegals are also able to help interpret these answers and are able to pose questions to the attorneys themselves. Once an answer is provided, it is published anonymously on

In the next version M-Sheria will attempt to incorporate two additional ideas: (1) Intelligent Voice Recognition which reads out the answer to the subscriber in either English or Swahili and (2) location based mapping of paralegals and other people who can offer personal support. To read more about how Kituo Cha Sheria sustains the program and rewards pro bono attorneys for assistance, click here.

Side note: M-Sheria is Kiswahili for mobile law and their slogan wakili mkononi means “a mobile lawyer in your pocket.”

Legal Assistance via SMS and Social Media

In Uganda, while studying law at Kampala International University, Gerald Abila used his iPhone to assist people who needed help with legal disputes through a Facebook group he created. After graduating from law school, he went on to become the founder of Barefoot Law, a non-profit that now boasts over 16,000 online followers who can ask for legal aid using a variety of platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Skype, SMS, radio, and television. In one day, they receive around 50 legal queries a day.

Barefoot’s reputation has also spread to neighboring countries. In Somalia, a person was denied worker’s compensation and reached out to his Facebook friends to find out where he could get a lawyer. After being referred to Barefoot Law, the person was informed of his rights and put in contact with an organization that handles employment law.

In addition to setting up offices in two cities, Barefoot Law has also partnered with other local and international organizations to enable people to reach out to them for help at any of their sister facilities. In rural areas, Barefoot Law is collaborating with radio stations to provide listeners with free legal advice. To read more, click here.

Court Transparency

Credit: Aria Suyudi

Credit: Aria Suyudi

In Indonesia, there are 800+ courts. In an effort to increase transparency and efficiency, a SMS system was introduced to keep the public informed on how their court fees were being spent by the court. 75% of Indonesians are cellphone subscribers and with 100% cellphone coverage nationwide, the SMS system allows those in rural areas to see how much of the budget is going to legal aid specifically allotted for their needs. For the first time, courts could show how they were providing access to justice for the poor.

According to Aria Suyudi, a Researcher and the former Coordinator for the Judicial Reform Team Office with the Supreme Court of Indonesia, the courts were previously dependent on a paper-based reporting system. Court reports were sent via snail mail through the post office, which could result in backlog. Now with the introduction of the new system, courts are able to use SMS to provide a range of details on court cases and consequently increase public trust in the justice system.

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This entry was posted on June 17, 2014 by in Innovative Programs and tagged , , , , , .

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